Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Best Bites of 2013

I realize that March of 2014 is rather late to be posting a best eats of 2013 list. But so it goes around here, and better late than never!

2Amys (Washington, DC)

Rare, I think, is the restaurant that can be a comforting midweek family treat, and also a destination for celebration that feels special and unique and indulgent – but 2Amys does it with aplomb. Lucky are the tourists who might casually stumble onto the black and white tiled floors after checking out the National Cathedral. For those who prefer not to leave their culinary delights to serendipity, make sure that 2Amys is built in to your DC itinerary (and yes, the cab ride or mile walk uphill from the Cleveland Park Metro station is well worth it). Their pizzas are always delicious (when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the classic margherita), but their attention to detail and clean flavors in their small plates selection is also phenomenal. Yet this is no hipster hangout, nor is there any white tablecloth pretension; parents and kids can easily enjoy a plate of house-cured salumi or fresh gigante beans with the most amazing olive oil without batting an eye. Admittedly, this place made it on to my list of best bites of 2013 for somewhat sentimental reasons, but I didn't plan months in advance to celebrate my 30th birthday here on a special trip to DC just for sentimentality. 

Burma Superstar (San Francisco, CA)
All the things you’ve heard about Burma Superstar are true, and YES, the wait is worth it. I don’t say that lightly. Though I often recommended the restaurant to others and especially out of towners (seeing as most people visiting San Francisco are hard-pressed to find Burmese food in their own hoods), for a long time I eschewed Burma Superstar personally for its less hyped, less populated Burmese counterparts elsewhere. I mean come on; a tea leaf salad is not that difficult to replicate.

But then out of towners came to visit ME, and when the place that I had hyped to them (Ad Hoc in Yountville) was less than spectacular, I joined them for a final meal at Burma Superstar. With five people arriving at 7:30 pm on a Friday night, it was close to 10 pm before we finally sat down (dear gaggle of twentysomething girls just dishing the dish for a solid 30 minutes after you have paid the bill: yes, those death stares were aimed at you). And I understood again why the wait list begins about 15 minutes after they open at 5 pm and doesn’t abate until late in the evening. If you’re just craving some tea leaf salad or mohinga soup, the 20 or so other Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area will likely suffice. But if you want a tea leaf salad that feels refreshing and not slicked down with oil, or a mohinga soup that finishes clean on the tongue even as its thick warmth satisfies your belly, stop the grumbling and wait for a table here. The menu items are similar to all the other Burmese places, but everything is just done *better* than anywhere else. 

Beast (Portland OR)
Such a delightful surprise of a brunch -- there was something just so lovely about arriving on a crisply sunny Sunday morning to this straightforward, unassuming, simple space. Everything was clean and organized and placed just so, such that I was inspired by the mere simple reptition of multiple place settings on the communal tables. The space is minimalist in the best way: a straightforward dining room of two long tables overlooked by an open kitchen, and just enough pink and chalkboard writing to feel modern and welcoming. When we arrived on the early side for our seating, the chefs (all female by the way) were still preparing dishes: hand-whipping cream, breaking up candied bacon (more on that later), dicing vegetables. Nothing was hurried or frantic; rather, I felt instantly at ease and comforted by the fact that *they* all seemed so at ease and comfortable.

There are just two seatings for brunch, and everyone sits at the same time and eats the same menu. Though my party didn't really interact with those next to us, there was definitely a sense of a shared rather than individual experience. When you're eating a divinely indulgent poached clafoutis with whipped cream and a slice of maple-glazed bacon oh so deliciously thinner and more crackly than you would ever expect, your heart veritably swells with appreciation that all these people around you get to experience the same amazing food.

Benu (San Francisco, CA)
This was a bit of a surprise. I had heard of Corey Lee when he came to speak at a CIA graduation, and had heard great things about Benu, but clearly didn’t have my facts right. For one, I thought that his restaurant was in Oakland. For another, I had no idea when I suggested my friend try this place at the end of the year that the tasting menu would be $200. Many jokes were had about getting our full money’s worth... but once we arrived, I swiftly regretted not having brought the “fancy” camera.

I don’t know if it was fully worth $200 per person, but I’m a cheapskate. That said, it was a very very good meal. Surprises abounded, there was whimsy, but with soul, and I loved the new take on some very familiar Asian flavors and concepts like black beans, XO sauce, xiao long bao, etc. I actually don’t know if someone not familiar with these the flavors would have had the same experience… perhaps such a person would interpet the dishes as more novel, rather than as innovative re-creations. On the other hand, I often thought to myself that my mom would have dismissed the food as frou-frou versions of Asian cuisine that is readily available for cheaper elsewhere. To some extent I think she would have been right: some dishes were highlights, while others were so-so, like a more modern take on salt and pepper calamari. None were horrible. The final dessert, a light and airy cake flavored by the tempting mystery of white sesame and counterbalanced by an intense sweet-tart plum sauce, was perfection.

Cavalier (San Francisco, CA)

I’ve been intrigued by the bad rap that British food gets all the time, and I have to say, if more places like Cavalier opened up around the world, maybe that rap would go away. There is a kind of practiced, pretentious masculinity in its ambience that verges on obtrusive to me (I always hate when a restaurant makes me feel not cool enough to eat there, before I've even eaten anything), but the menu is like a greatest hits compilation of all the British food Americans didn't realize was delicious. The vibrancy of colors on my plate should surely put to rest the idea that all British food is gray mush, and this sticky toffee pudding in particular made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven. The prices could come down a bit to make it all feel a little bit more accessible... though I suppose if you consider the exchange rate between the British pound and the US dollar right now and standard London prices, the Cavalier might actually seem like a good deal.